Monday, June 23, 2008

The Red Queen

I almost put it down, but I'm glad I didn't. I grabbed The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature on a whim. I'm a bio nerd, and at the same time I had grabbed a couple of other books in a similar vein at the same time so why not? I've been consuming books like a mad man on this trip, but this one was hard to get into at first. Red flags went up when I was inspecting it before committing as I noticed that the blurbs about the book weren't from biologists, but rather from various newspapers. I don't care what the Boston Globe thinks about any science book unless a scientist wrote the damn review. And their review was crap anyway. This book was not "literary and witty."

Which is partly why I almost put it down. Until he finds his stride and gets out of laying groundwork and into the subject at hand, Matt Ridley's writing is more irritating than anything. He isn't a bad writer (obviously) but there are little things about the way he writes that kept irritating the fuck out of me for the first few chapters. Partly this is the irritable know-it-all in me that is sifting through the necessary groundwork of a science book written for a popular audience and bristling at feeling condescended to having all these basic concepts rehashed, but I go through that every time I read science from any author and I know that my memory is a big fat jumble and I like rehashing these ground rules before setting out on this journey with whatever teacher. Most bio writers don't get my back up like this when I read them, but this guy really did. Partly it was how he presented conflicting ideas as a sort of Highlander death match: "There can be only one." Biology isn't a clean pretty sort of clockwork science, particularly when we start talking about how this or that might have evolved or what selective pressures might have led to whatever. There might be various pressures playing out or different ones at work in different cases, but the tone at the beginning of the book was the opposite. There are answers and this or that is the correct conclusion blah blah blah. He was more nuanced the further into the subject we went, but his discussion of why sex exists was, though extremely informative and wide ranging, barely tolerable. That sounds harsh and it kind of is, particularly since I now think fondly of the book having finished it. I feel like I really took something away from reading it and plan on recommending it to friends, but I really almost just put it back on the shelf.

So if you pick it up, expect to do some trudging before it catches its stride; or if you have started it and put it down, consider picking it up again. It is well worth the effort.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

so what does he have to say about why sex exists anyway? or what's his working theses at the very least? i know you weren't reviewing the book for the globe, but inquiring minds want to know....